Joining forces for the best education

Anita Tenasco, standing in a museum lobby, wearing a colourful First Nations beaded necklace

“We can’t work in isolation. To make true, positive change — and a concerted effort toward reconciliation — we have to work hand in hand.”

—  Anita Tenasco

By Michelle Hibler

An enduring partnership between uOttawa and a First Nations community is delivering first-class education to both local students and teacher candidates, while helping to preserve Algonquin culture and bring Indigenous perspectives into the classroom.

“For the past decade, we have had a close relationship with the Faculty of Education, through research and by having teachers and teacher candidates come to our classrooms,” says Anita Tenasco. Since 2005, the University of Ottawa alumna (BA ’93, BEd ’94) has been director of education for the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, located near Maniwaki, Quebec, about an hour and a half north of Ottawa.

“Whether in education, curriculum, or preserving and recording our Algonquin language, the University has offered to help in any way it can,” she says. “Our common goal is for more First Nations students to get to postsecondary studies.”

Every year, about 10 University of Ottawa teacher candidates undertake two-week placements at the Kitigan Zibi school and also volunteer in classrooms there at other times.

“Tenasco’s community and students deserve the best education — to do well anywhere in the world,” says Nicholas Ng-A-Fook, director of uOttawa's Teacher Education program, who initiated the partnership.

Developing confident people

The Kitigan Zibi school has a clear goal: “to develop healthy, happy, safe, confident people who are aware of our Algonquin culture and history,” Tenasco says. The school offers classes from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 11 — the final year of high school in Quebec — and issues its own diplomas, which are recognized by postsecondary institutions across Canada.

The Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg took control of their education system in the 1970s. While the school now follows the Quebec provincial curriculum, “all our teachers have the ability and flexibility to shape that curriculum to reflect our culture, history, language and traditions,” Tenasco says.

All but one of the school’s 21 teachers are from First Nations. Many of them, including Tenasco, graduated from the Kitigan Zibi high school.

With an on-reserve population of about 1,650 and another 1,450 living off reserve, Kitigan Zibi is the largest of 10 communities in the Ottawa River Valley that make up the Algonquin Anishinabe Nation. The commitment to teaching the Algonquin language is most strongly manifested in the half-day immersion program for students from grades 1 to 6, which was launched in 1990. About 20 of the school’s almost 200 children enroll each year.

“Over the years, we’ve found that the students who have completed the program are very fluent in the language,” Tenasco says. “They’re confident and fully aware of who they are as Anishinabeg. Once they go on to Grade 7, they’re successful. You can learn concepts in any language and be successful.”

Kitigan Zibi Director of Education Anita Tenasco, left, with graduating student Mika Tolley and school Principal Judy Cote.

Working together for change

A joint uOttawa and Kitigan Zibi research group is now looking at what it means to decolonize — or indigenize — the curriculum, working together to develop materials that are uniquely Algonquin.

“Our teaching staff have been engaging faculty members on the latest trends in education and research, First Nations issues, reconciliation and how to engage Aboriginal learners,” says Tenasco, who has completed a certificate in First Nations leadership from Saint Paul University in Ottawa.

“We’re making it a priority to keep that conversation going about reconciliation and how to truly have our culture reflected in our schools.”

Kitigan Zibi Elders have also met with faculty to discuss the content for a new course on First Nations, Inuit and Métis perspectives that will be mandatory for all Faculty of Education students starting in fall 2016.

“It’s one small step toward addressing the educational calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Ng-A-Fook says. The course will also be offered as an elective in uOttawa’s Francophone teacher education program.

“The University and faculty members are looking for guidance,” Tenasco says. “They want to hear from First Nations leaders and teachers to help guide their work. This is valuable work.

“We can’t work in isolation. To make true, positive change — and a concerted effort toward reconciliation — we have to work hand in hand.”

Mutual benefits

Ng-A-Fook notes that the partnership with Kitigan Zibi also greatly benefits uOttawa’s teacher candidates. “When they go there, they’re amazed at the school, the pride and the resources they’ve been able to put in place,” he says.

Tenasco agrees. “They really appreciate connecting with the Algonquin people. And they find it a beautiful setting — the school is in the forest with a little lake nearby. We try our best to share our culture with them.”

“And our students just love the teacher candidates. They bond with them. They’re a fresh face, a new spirit in our school. They always bring a bag of tricks and something new for our students and teachers.”

Main photo:
Anita Tenasco has been director of education for the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation since 2005. Photo: Andrea Campbell


Staff and students of the Kitigan Zibi school, pictured with Nicholas Ng-A-Fook, director of uOttawa's Teacher Education program, and MEd candidate Kiera Brant (front row, right). Photo: Peter Thornton

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